Animal behaviour: A stilted story
IF THERE were a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Ants, Matthias Wittlinger of the University of Ulm, in Germany, would probably be top of its hate list. The reason is that Dr Wittlinger and his colleagues have, as they report in this week’s Science, been chopping the feet off ants. And not only that. They have been making other ants walk around on stilts.
Saharan desert ants of the genus Cataglyphis have to travel long distances to discover food in their impoverished, sandy environment. How they find their way home once they have done so is a mystery. Ants in more temperate climates often lay down chemical trails, but Cataglyphis, apparently, does not. Like honeybees and ancient mariners, they can navigate by the sun, so they know the general direction in which to travel. But, also like ancient mariners (who knew their latitude, but not their longitude), such solar reckoning cannot tell them when to stop.
Dr Wittlinger, therefore, decided to investigate a century- old hypothesis that desert ants have internal pedometers—in other words, they count their steps out, and they count them back. When one total matches the other, they are home. To test this idea he trained his ants to walk from their nests to a feeding station through a ten-metre-long channel. When they had picked up the food, he caught them and made them return through a different channel, which also led to the nest. When they made this return journey, they began their characteristic nest-searching behaviour, quartering the ground in detail looking for the entrance, after travelling about ten metres.
Once the ants had mastered this trick, the experiment proper began. Some ants, when they arrived at the feeding station, had the ends of their legs amputated, to shorten their stride length. Others were fitted with stilts in the form of pig-bristles glued to their feet. Both lots were then returned to the feeding station, to make the journey home.
As predicted, the ants on stilts, whose stride- length meant their internal pedometers had not clicked enough times, walked blithely past their nests, and were left stranded almost five metres on the far side before they started looking for the hole. Meanwhile, the poor stumped ants travelled only about six metres before they started their search.
The story, however, has a happy ending. Having proved his point, Dr Wittlinger returned both stumped and stilted ants to the nest and gave them a few days to recover. Then he let them out for another run. Now that they could re-count their outbound journeys, they were able to calculate the journey home correctly. Ants may not be very bright, but it seems they have a head for figures.
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